Water Quality Bill Clears First Hurdle - More Work Ahead
On February 20 in Montpelier the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee recommended H. 35, the water quality bill by a vote of 7-2. The bill still needs approval from the Agriculture and Ways and Means Committees before heading to the House floor. Meanwhile a companion bill is wending its way through the Senate.
From the outset, LCC’s highest priority for this bill was to establish a stable funding source for water quality projects. The current edition of the bill accomplishes this goal by increasing fees on stormwater projects, raising the gas tax by $.02, increasing the sales tax on phosphorus fertilizer and raising the rooms and meals tax. LCC had advocated for an increase in the fertilizer tax and a per-parcel fee tied to impervious cover. While some of the revenue generating mechanisms proposed differ from those espoused by LCC we are pleased that our call for a stable funding stream was heard. The bill does call for a study on how a per-parcel fee could be implemented to be delivered by next January.
While the bill still needs strengthening, many of its provisions reflect LCC priorities for taking a comprehensive approach to water protection that involves all sectors and includes a funding provision to raise at least $10 million annually. The bill establishes a Clean Water Fund with a governance board that includes at least one environmental advocacy organization with water quality expertise. It also calls for revision and strengthening of accepted agricultural practices (AAPs). It creates a self-certification program for small farms to attest that they are complying with AAPs and calls for a training program to provide farmers with information about AAPs and how to comply with them. It allows the Agency of Agriculture to dis-enroll farms from the Current Use program if they don't follow the AAPs, a move which would substantially increase their tax bills. Other provisions include authorization of new permitting programs for local roads, increased involvement of Regional Planning Commissions in developing river basin water quality plans, and mandatory forest management practices to protect water quality. Additionally it allows the state to impose stricter pollution control standards on farms and wastewater facilities even in the absence of outside funding. Current state law allows stricter standards only if public resources are available to meet those standards.
“We don't have to look far to see the devastating impact of poor water quality on our communities, economy and quality of life. Last summer Missisquoi Bay, St. Albans Bay, and Lake Carmi all suffered from extensive blue-green algae blooms that inhibited use, threatened public health and had reverberating economic effects,” said Lori Fisher, Lake Champlain Committee Executive Director. “This bill is an important move to reverse the trend. We hope it will be strengthened so we can reclaim the health of polluted waterways and protect high quality waters throughout the state.”
There is still much work to be done to secure passage of a strong bill with greater regulatory controls and robust funding mechanisms to ensure implementation. Provisions LCC would like to see added include a requirement for best management practices (BMPs) for all farms in watersheds like St. Albans Bay and Missisquoi Bay that are far from achieving water quality standards. BMPs are farm specific, more rigorous than AAPs, and include a suite of management controls to keep nutrients from running off into waterways.
Please stay engaged and contact your legislators to let them know you want to see a water bill with strong regulatory controls and a robust funding plan pass this year. Mark your calendars and plan to join LCC and friends on March 17 for Clean Water Day at the Vermont State House.